When Queen Elizabeth II visits Northern Ireland next Wednesday, her program will include meeting its deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, chief of staff of the Provisional IRA from 1978 to 1982 and a leading member of both the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, through the 30-odd years of the “Troubles.” In this former career, McGuinness was responsible directly and indirectly for the murder of many innocent people, Catholics and Protestants, by bombing and shooting. Among those victims was the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, in 1979. Other victims may be hardly less renowned. According to to Douglas Murray’s closely reasoned analysis of the evidence before the Saville Inquiry in his important Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies, and the Saville Inquiry — McGuinness brought a submachine gun to the protest march and may have fired it at a very early stage of the massacre. Because Murray condemns the British Paras in unqualified terms for their role in the murders — as did both the Inquiry and Prime Minister David Cameron — this criticism of McGuinness cannot be dismissed as an official excuse. The fact that McGuinness helped greatly to escalate the early conflict in Northern Ireland has to be taken seriously. McGuinness has neither acknowledged nor repented of these crimes; he has merely expressed a general regret that innocent people died in the armed struggle.
Today the “Troubles” are all but over. A relatively small number of die-hard Republican terrorists, known absurdly as “dissidents,” continue the “Brits Out” campaign, shooting the occasional policeman, planting the odd bomb near a school. Catholic and Protestant working-class localities in Belfast and Derry, no longer in fear of sectarian bombings, nonetheless live under the thumb of co-religionist gangsters who began as the “hard men” of the armed struggle. Northern Ireland is recovering from its Calvary, but it is a harsher, colder, and poorer place today than it would have been without the 30 years of war. It is scarcely less divided than in the past. In southern Ireland, Sinn Fein has put murder behind it to emerge as a “populist” party on the model of France’s National Front and a possible contender for power in the event of a close election. “Dissidents” in both the North and South now kneecap or murder drug dealers and petty criminals in a brutal crowd-pleasing strategy that the Provos and Sinn Fein once pioneered but now condemn. All these are the fruits not of the Troubles merely, but of their long duration.
Yet most of the legitimate aims of Irish nationalism were conceded in the 1970s, long before the Good Friday Agreement, except for two: a united Ireland and, very significantly, a guaranteed place in government for Sinn Fein and other political parties rooted in terrorism. Ireland is still divided and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. So the price of today’s cold peace was a minister’s limousine for Martin McGuinness.
Nonetheless, in an attempt to make that peace warmer — to draw a line between present and past and promote reconciliation between both parts of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain — then-president Mary MacAleese last year invited the queen to visit the Irish Republic. By common consent, the queen’s visit was a moving, even-handed, and even imaginative occasion. The queen laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to commemorate “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom.” They include the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising executed by the British Army. She and President MacAleese also made preparations to commemorate those volunteers, Irishmen and Ulstermen alike, who fought in the British Army in the “Great War,” above all on the Somme, and who were written out of history in the first 90 years of the Irish Republic. It is undeniable that both the queen’s visit and the warm response to it by Irish leaders and the Irish people were historic steps toward a full reconciliation of all people throughout the British Isles (or, to forestall the usual pettifogging objection, on both sides of the Irish Sea). Both women deserve great praise. Today the queen’s meeting with McGuinness is generally seen as the next step in this process of reconciliation.
This opinion is held even by many of the Provisional IRA’s victims and their families. No praise is too high for the Christian charity they have shown toward their former tormentors — a Christian charity disgracefully lacking in a sectarian-nationalist war. They have the moral authority to ask the rest of us to forget the past in an attempt to secure a better future. And their virtue is seconded by the hard calculation that prime ministers, diplomats, peace negotiators, and policemen must sometimes shake hands with murderers in order to persuade them to put down their arms and settle disputes democratically. It’s a dirty job, but we elect governments to do it.